An Interview with Hilary Plum
by Luke McKiddy
In your works there seems to be intentional experimentation with forms. The narrative of your short story “Folktales” is presented as dialogue from an interview between two characters. In your novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, the use of multiple perspectives feels markedly postmodern in nature. Could you explain your reasoning for using this style of narrative?
Both They Dragged Them Through the Streets and my new novel manuscript, from which “Folktales” is excerpted, are narrated in the first-person. Both projects are drawn toward, fascinated by, the artifice in fiction in which an “I” arrives on the page and begins speaking—that moving spotlight on the stage of the novel, into which a character steps and a monologue ensues. (A beautiful novel in which first-person narrators appear in mesmerizing succession: Stephen Graham Jones’s Ledfeather.) They Dragged Them Through the Streets has four narrators, who alternate in brief chapters; my new manuscript (which is titled Superdome) has several dozen narrators, so that neither of the characters in “Folktales” returns—though there may be echoes of their voices in those who take their place. I am certainly interested in the variety of forms that can make up a novel: the different narrative modes through which one moves sentence by sentence (from image to thought to speech to memory—even “conventional” fiction is in continual motion) and the endlessly heterogeneous varieties of form and discourse that a single novel can employ, juxtapose, blend, hybridize.
The choice in They Dragged Them Through the Streets to almost exclusively use the first letters of character’s names when being referenced by others felt very controlled and intentional. Could you talk about this decision?
Yes—I’ve written about this elsewhere, but let me try to say something new today.
So much of the workings of fiction could be described as acts of naming: the very principles at the heart of verisimilitude, of describing the world so that we can envision it as corresponding to the world we know; the naming-by-substitution we employ casually in every metaphor, where we describe something else in order to better describe something. But contemporary fiction and discussions thereof rarely grapple with the problems of naming, or at least much less often than I’d expect. To me this seems a failure of realism—in our lives, the act of naming is tied up with profound questions of how we are known and know ourselves in the world. In contrast, fiction often names people, places, and things easily, as if our experience were so simple. Names in fiction only ask a reader’s attention when they seem overtly symbolic, or when a story or novel seems to be withholding names, or substituting fabulist nouns for realistic ones (perhaps as in “Folktales,” which can’t quite be situated in historical time or place, and which centers on an animal that is in fact imaginary). In They Dragged Them Through the Streets, I used initials to explore or to try to represent the elusiveness of names as we live them: how we continually re-name the people we love; how we live with the simple but strange fact that names are shared but the people they represent are singular; how naming is ubiquitous but also continually resisted. These last two are phenomena that language theory will never stop exploring (at what point do we stop calling this tree and start calling it paper; or how, when I lay a board here, is it suddenly a table, etc.), but we also just live them in their complexity in every moment. As an undergraduate I was obsessed with Buddhist language theory (so, another book recommendation: Jay Garfield’s wonderful translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, which I’ve recently been rereading), and I suppose the skepticism about naming I was introduced to then has settled in my gut, so that each work of fiction has to take it on anew.
Now that I’ve written all that, I realize I could simply have turned to Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” (1968), its famed opening:
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,
The sad marvels;
Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.
Both your short story and novel establish multiple unique characters. Could you give some advice you consider or techniques that you use when creating a complex character, or populating a fictional world with distinct individuals?
I’m glad if it seemed there were distinct, unique characters within the novel and within “Folktales”—that’s always gratifying to hear. I’ve been teaching at a high-school creative writing program this week, and so I’ve been having to publicly struggle with the unanswerableness of questions like this. How do distinct individuals appear a work of fiction? Just how does an illusion of myriad people and places arise out of pages one person writes by herself, years of work she undertakes solitarily?
I think the answer has something to do with the falseness of that last adverb, with the fact that even though writing is such solitary work—you sit there at the desk, alternately writing and staring at a wall, pacing a room, downloading various programs that will keep you off the internet—this is somehow a means for the world to manifest itself, and for you to allow and articulate a fuller experience of it than you can moment by moment in your everyday life. Most of the time we are (or at least I am) just trying to cope with the terrifying fact of consciousness, always too much and too little to bear: more than we want to face, and yet so brief that it can and will be momentarily extinguished. When we write, we invite others to speak through our voice and to inhabit us. We claim instants of time, moments of sensation, back from the torrent of history.
This spring I reread Radwa Ashour’s astonishing novel Specters
. Ashour once said
, “Writing is a retrieval of a human will negated. I write, the space becomes my own, and I am no longer an object acted upon by history but a subject acting in history.” This quote speaks beautifully to one essential aspect of the ethics of literature. Yet I think that Ashour’s work does more than this, too—she also lends this agency to her characters; for the course of the novel they too may become subjects in, not objects of, history. The novel is, then, a means to honor and mourn the specters who haunt our history: in lending them new life, literature performs an inexplicable magic, a transcendent ethics. And this is the aim—I can’t say that I’ve managed it, but it’s what I aspire to.
Each section of the novel individually feels poetic; however, they all serve the larger overall narrative. Could you describe some of your influences, and give an indication of the process that led to They Dragged Them Through the Streets?
I often describe the novel as resulting from a practice of attention: a book whose fragmentary form attests to my daily attention, through the years in which I was writing, to reportage from the Iraq War. The form attesting to a practice through which I imagined a group of characters who—unlike so much of the culture around them, around us—offered urgent attention and forceful response to that war. This explanation is true, and not quite true.
After all, one could always ask: Why a novel? When we open the newspaper this morning, and read of the horrors of war’s return to Gaza, ISIS’s victories in Iraq, why would anyone then turn to fiction? That question is both sincere and rhetorical (writers like Radwa Ashour, for instance, answer it so well that it need not be asked). There is no response equal to these tragedies; but literature can, vitally, express both the great need for and the insufficiency of response. And this last thought has something to do with the reasons for this particular novel’s form: many brief pieces, continually leaping in time, four voices who address the reader but also speak back and forth to and about one another. I wanted the novel to embody a few people’s attempt at something like collective action, collective understanding, a collective act of history-making. This collectivity fractures; we meet these characters when they have disentangled themselves from one another, or at least tried to. Yet their narratives are implicated in and implicate one another. There are, as you described, distinct characters, but they are also not that distinct—after all, the novel’s four voices often sound alike. I wanted the novel to live on this verge, where the individual becomes the collective, where what we think of as I can no longer be precisely described, precisely distinguished from you or from some larger story. This question of the clarity and integrity of these characters, these Is, changed through drafts of the novel. The clarity and integrity of each sentence changed too, under the wise guidance of Noy Holland (with whom I worked at UMass Amherst).
E.g.: while I was in the thick of this novel, I took a seminar on Samuel Beckett that Noy taught. At some point I had to give a presentation, itself quite forgettable but during which I said the phrase the excruciation of time
, and from the audience Noy repeated, at a murmur, the word excruciation
. Noy’s fiction illustrates how each story of a life—and so each life—is built word by word, sentence by sentence: how language compels us forward into more language, backward into repetition, outward into other voices, whose words we’re then left to mutter to ourselves. This transformative attention to language in its precision, how language mediates and urges and sings and enslaves our experience at each instant—could this, even at its most beautiful, be called excruciation
? I think that could be true, for this novel, at least. Oppen would have a different answer, one with more breath in it, a greater sense of the horizon. In They Dragged Them Through the Streets
I wasn’t looking toward the horizon; I was thinking of how we each live along the border that is skin, that is self: a border both inviolable and perfectly violable.
In the end notes you acknowledge a large number of articles and individuals. Especially when writing about a subject that is very sensitive to some, what do you look for in the articles you read and the individuals that you interview?
I should note that I didn’t conduct any interviews for this novel; I read, watched the news and documentaries, went to panels and protests. In the novel I wished to represent a mediated experience of the war: the experience that all those of us who were not in Iraq during or as part of the war had, necessarily. The experience of the contemporary American home front. It seemed essential to emphasize the fact of this mediation—the war as read, as watched, as known only through others’ representation—since this has been such a devastating quality of the past decade’s wars, the age of the “global war on terror.” These wars have been fought by less than one percent of the US population, and much of the time the wars somehow didn’t even manage to claim the public’s attention (we cut our own taxes during them, no less). In the past couple years, we’ve heard from increasing numbers of veterans, with diverse portrayals and analyses of the wars they fought, but for a long time and still for the most part, the larger culture seemed to want to hear only a very limited number of stories, only those that fit its comfortable and preconceived ideas (from yellow-ribbon car decals to stereotypes about PTSD).
These wars have been increasingly privatized and increasingly unmanned, as the phrase is—witness the shocking fact that the US has killed approximately 3,000 people in Pakistan (a country with whom we are not, ostensibly, at war) by drone. This phenomenon—as much war as possible with as few troops as possible—seems likely to continue. While this may minimize American casualties, it is no good news for people around the world, since without the draft, without the common responsibility of military service, the US public seems dangerously apathetic about the wars its leaders are inclined to wage. Lately Americans have shown an increasing interest in hearing from our own veterans, but we have shown shamefully little interest in the stories of Iraqis and in even beginning to face up to all we have done in Iraq. As from 2007 to 2012 I wrote this novel, I wanted to try to comprehend this apathy and its consequences, by imagining characters who felt deeply engaged by the war’s suffering and injustice, but fundamentally helpless. What can a few citizens of an empire do? What resistance is possible, or right, or practical, or not already translated into the language of despair?
And this is a question I don’t even have a right to ask, when I think of what the people of Iraq are living at this moment. Here, for me, conversations about the war are only words—the topic may be sensitive, but the consequences are just more words, flung back and forth. There, the stakes are life and death, and have been so for a horrifically long time. What I, an American citizen, owe the people of Iraq is something far greater than any words, any apology, any possible confession or testimony or revision of history. But we human animals are stuck with and in language; it’s what we may and must offer. So I’ll point to this recent essay, by veteran Roy Scranton. I’ll point to the work of Hassan Blasim, Etel Adnan, Sinan Antoon, Khaled Mattawa, Philip Metres, and others, whose writing demands our attention, our engagement. I think I may not have quite answered your question—so, just to say, I look to voices as challenging and forceful as these.
Read her short story "Folktales" here.